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OPINION | REX NELSON: Alice's wonderland

by Rex Nelson | June 27, 2021 at 1:45 a.m.

For those who have watched Alice Walton pour money and fresh thinking into northwest Arkansas, the news came as no surprise. In April, it was announced that the already spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville will increase its size by 50 percent. Almost 100,000 square feet will be added to the current 200,000-square-foot facility.

"It's wonderful to see how our community, our region and travelers to Bentonville from across the nation and around the world have embraced Crystal Bridges and enjoyed the experience of being surrounded by art, nestled in nature and immersed in Moshe Safdie's architecture," Walton said. "With the number of visitors we welcome annually, it's time to enlarge our building and make sure more people can access these offerings."

Construction will begin early next year with a 2024 completion date. New structures will house additional galleries, educational facilities, event spaces, a cafe, and indoor and outdoor gathering areas. Safdie Architects said it will continue to integrate "art, architecture and nature."

April's announcement came just six months after Walton said said she's building a six-story parking structure on the east side of the museum's campus and just north of a children's museum known as the Scott Family Amazeum. This isn't your typical parking garage. For starters, it's being designed by internationally recognized architect Marlon Blackwell. And it will include two levels of programming space on the west side.

Blackwell has worked on the museum store, restaurant and coffee bar at Crystal Bridges. He was awarded the 2020 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the organization's highest honor. The landscape architect for the project is Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture of Freeport, Maine.

"Through the design process, we were thinking about architecture's role in presenting a space for community," Blackwell said. "This is more than a parking structure. It's an extended threshold to the Crystal Bridges campus and provides an event stage for a variety of outdoor programs and activities focused on art and nature."

It was also announced that an outdoor play space known as Convergence will be developed. The design for that project is being funded by the Walton Family Foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program.

Crystal Bridges officials describe Convergence as a space that will "invite visitors to step off the trail and into a park that uses the natural surroundings to engage the senses with interactive elements and water features that mimic the Ozark landscapes.

"Still in the schematic design phase, this project combines the expertise of Crystal Bridges and the Amazeum to create a free, public place to interact with art and nature through play."

All of this activity on the Crystal Bridges campus comes as the museum prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary. One of these days, we will look back on the day Crystal Bridges opened--Nov. 11, 2011--as a landmark in this state's history.

A small state previously known for natural beauty (along with producing talented politicians and occasionally good college football and basketball teams), Arkansas could now take its place among the states to which people travel to experience the arts.

I vividly recall my first visit to Crystal Bridges. It was one of those "I can't believe I'm in Arkansas" moments. I remember entering a gallery, seeing Norman Rockwell's iconic "Rosie the Riveter" and thinking, "Wow. This important piece of our American culture now calls my state home."

During my recent visit to Bentonville, one of Walton's advisers said this about Crystal Bridges: "Alice envisioned it as a gift to the community, offering five centuries of American art, the beauty of the Ozark landscape and an architectural treasure of a building that unified art and nature. It was her way of sharing her love of the region and its landscape, as well as her passion for art and how it had helped her understand the American story.

"As the museum nears its 10th anniversary, it has become just what Alice envisioned--a place that offers transformative experiences."

Since it opened, Crystal Bridges has:

• Attracted more than 5.2 million visitors, including almost 300,000 students on school trips.

• Grown its collection from 1,500 works to 3,300.

• Drawn a younger, more diverse demographic than most art museums.

• Become known as a leader in the museum field in the areas of community outreach, virtual learning programs and educating teachers to use art as a resource.

• Supported development of a satellite contemporary art space, the Momentary, in a former Bentonville cheese factory, which opened last year.

In 2017, Walton established the Art Bridges Foundation to expand access to American art, especially for those who live in rural areas. Art Bridges has its own art collection and partners with museums who don't mind seeing parts of their collections go on the road.

Art Bridges has worked with 126 organizations in 37 states, funding more than 400 projects and reaching 2.4 million people.

In 2019, Walton partnered with the American Alliance of Museums to diversify museum leadership across the country. She later spearheaded a family foundation gift that provided $120 million to the University of Arkansas to create an art school.

Walton's focus on the arts and how they affect her daily life led to an interest in wellness initiatives. Thus Walton announced last year the establishment of the Whole Health Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on health care. The institute will be housed in an architectural jewel of a building on the Crystal Bridges campus. Blackwell will design the 75,000-square-foot structure.

"With cantilevered sections that will soar over the park-like grounds of Crystal Bridges, the low-slung building will also feature extensive community space for the institute to present holistic, well-being-minded public programming as well as office space for Walton's Art Bridges initiative,' Matt Hickman wrote for "It will also provide access to the Chopra Library for Integrative Studies and Whole Health (formerly ISHAR, a subsidiary of the Chopra Foundation), which became a department of the Whole Health Institute in 2020."

"As our newly formed institution continues to develop, the location on Crystal Bridges' campus and the design of this building provide an ideal setting for interactive programs that will welcome the community to take charge of their health and well-being, surrounded by nature and inspiring works of art," said Tracy Gaudet, the Whole Health Institute executive director.

Blackwell said: "There's a focus on creating a sense of place that manifests into the curvilinear forms and native stone inspired by the Ozark forest and karst topography. The openness of the building and access to the natural surroundings are also important elements and an invitation to actively explore healing in relation to art, nature and architecture in a time when health is such an important local and global issue."

Crystal Bridges and Whole Health Institute are described by Rod Bigelow, the Crystal Bridges executive director, as "partner organizations with an aligned vision of enriching lives. We're excited to welcome them to the neighborhood and look forward to exploring the intersection of art, nature and well-being through programs, conversations and collaborations."

Thus the campus will now include an expanded art museum (increasingly recognized as one of the best in the country), a health and wellness institute, a state-of-the-art children's museum (the Amazeum opened in 2015), hiking and cycling trails, outdoor sculptures and even a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.

It's truly Alice's wonderland; a place that merges art, architecture, wellness and nature; the kind of place that can change the trajectory of an entire state.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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